Sailing with the Penguin - May, 2010
It has been a busy month for the crew of the Rockhopper. We finished the engine installation, reattached the forestay, painted the
dinghy, installed a new VHF radio and took care of the hundreds of details necessary to move back to Richmond.
We started the month in a motel in Yorktown – the Yorktown Motor Lodge – which was very popular with the Cox Cable installation
people. There were at least a dozen bucket trucks there every night and more on the weekends. Apparently, contractors from all over
were in the Yorktown area for cable installations. While the motel didn’t have all the luxuries of the Homewood Suites where we had
spent five weeks, it was clean, comfortable and definitely easier on the cruising kitty.
The last installation in the engine systems was the replacement of the old fuel system with new. Hoses and the bulkhead mounted fuel
filter had developed air leaks and the engine kept losing its prime. We replaced the Racor fuel filter with a new Racor 900 MA unit. The
principal benefit here was the cost of the filters themselves. The filter elements for the new unit are about half the price of the old one.
Of course, since they only have to be changed every 500 hours, it’ll be a while before we see any real savings.
The headstay was a less successful project. We have replaced our old Hood unit, which had broken apart, with a new Spin-Tec
Triumph 2000. What we did not realize at the time was that the Spin-Tec company is a very small operation out in California. In fact, at
one point when I called for technical assistance, I was told that someone would have to call me back in a day or two because there was
no one there who could answer questions.
The other problem with the unit is that the various parts are held together with Gorilla Glue. I have not been able to get all of the pieces
to hold together correctly because the glue doesn’t work right – which could be in the way I am putting it together, but I don’t see how.
Also, the glue has a tendency to foam up and block the channel in which the sail is supposed to ride.
We had tried to put the new unit up ourselves and only succeeded in bending it in three places. I got replacement pieces from the
company and glued them in, but the connections still were bad. When I tried to put the head stay back together, I didn’t get the Swage-
Lok fitting together right and was uncomfortable with either cutting more or putting it up as-is. Since the technician at Rigging Only, the
company from which I bought some of the replacement rigging supplies, heavily recommended replacing the wire and turnbuckle
anyway - the rigging is at least ten years old and probably much older - I decided to have pros from Southern Bay Rigging do the
Once they looked at the Spin-Tec, they too were mystified by the idea of gluing it together. They said they could probably get the new
wire into the unit, but they weren’t sure and it would take awhile. Then, they pointed out that, even if they got it on the wire, the glue in
the tracks would prevent the sail from going up anyway. At that point, I gave in.
I told them to put the headstay up and give me a quote for re-rigging the entire boat, including a new roller furler unit. I don’t know
about the current unit – I am going to contact the company and see if there is a local company that can do the actual installation, but I
want to look at other options as well.
The new VHF radio is a Standard Horizon GX2100 with an integrated AIS receiver. For those of you not “in the know,” AIS is a fairly
new technology that automatically broadcasts a vessel’s name, speed and course. The distance it transmits is relatively small, usually
five to ten miles around a vessel, but that is far enough to be able to make decisions as to how close the other vessel will get to you and
what you should do about it. The technology is required for commercial vessels over a certain size, and voluntary for recreational
I decided to go with just a receiver for a couple of reasons. First, I do not need to tell everyone where I am going; I just need to know
where the big boys are so that I can avoid them. I figure they aren’t going to be calling me and asking me what I want to do, I’ll call
them. Second, a receiver is much cheaper than a transmitter. Third, the more vessels out there transmitting, the more cluttered the
screen. I don’t need to be adding to the radio pollution.
The AIS receiver in the radio connects to the RayMarine Chartplotter that I have in the cockpit and to the laptop computer I now have at
my navigation station, so the information is available everywhere I need it. I want to add a remote control microphone to the set up so
that I can control the radio from the cockpit, but these are on back-order pretty much across the world, so that will have to wait.
One other nifty feature of the new radio is that it has a PA system built in and can act as an automatic fog horn. Since adding a horn
and automated foghorn system was already on my project list, this knocked off three things at one time. I love it when a plan comes
We were finally able to make it to Richmond the weekend of the 22nd. We left Jordan Marine in Gloucester Point at about 4:00 on
Friday evening, which was the best time to catch a fair tide. The Northwest Branch of Sarah Creek is not deep and, while I knew we had
gotten in there, we were behind a boat that was leading us by about fifty feet. Knowing the depth fifty feet in front of you is much better
than knowing the depth five feet ahead of your keel. I had collected all of the “local knowledge” that I could (and most of it was actually
in agreement with each other – usually, if you ask five boaters the best path out of an area, you get seven answers), so I was prepared
as I could be, but I still was a little nervous that I would run aground and have to call TowBoat to come pull me off a mud bar. I had been
towed in, I really didn’t want to get towed out.
As we started to pull away from the pier, things went to hell quickly. A single screw inboard engine tends to be squirrelly at low speeds
anyway. The rudder doesn’t really do anything until the boat has water flowing past it, so it has to be moving to have steerage – but
this was worse than normal. It seemed that when I went forward and turned the wheel to the left, the boat went to the right and vice
versa. However, I really couldn’t get up enough speed to tell because I kept circling into the dock. Going backwards worked better,
since the rudder had even less control there, so I backed out of the slip and let the boat slide into a turn. Then, I started trying to go
forward again, and off we went in the wrong direction. Of course, there was also a strong current flow into the creek, so that was
pushing us one way, and a strong breeze across the creek, so that was pushing us another direction. However, even taking all of that
into consideration, we still didn’t seem to be going the right direction.
Our boat has hydraulic steering. A pump up at the cockpit turns left or right, forcing hydraulic fluid to a steering ram connected to the
top of the rudder. When the wheel is turned to the left, the fluid flows through the left hand pipe, down to the ram, which is forced out,
turning the rudder to the left and causing the boat to turn. EXCEPT….
In order to get to the engine room to put in the new engine, the floor of the cockpit, called the sole, had to be lifted out. In order to do
that, I had disconnected the hydraulic lines from the helm pump. I had not marked them in any way (error 1). When the engine
installation was done, the mechanic hooked the lines back up for me. I then refilled the system and purged the lines. I then watched
the rudder as Suzanne turned the wheel to make sure that everything turned the right direction (error 2). I then never bothered to
actually try moving the boat before getting underway for real (error 3).
The lines had been hooked up backward. What I saw the rudder doing was actually the reverse of what it should have been doing, but
since I was looking at it from the wrong side (above and in front), it looked right to me. So, when we actually got underway, the boat
steered in reverse. When I wanted to go left, I had to turn to the right.
It only took me a few minutes to figure this out, but then I was faced with a real decision. Did I pull back into the boatyard and try to fix
the problem, knowing that I might miss the tide I wanted (did I mention that Suzanne had a doctor’s appointment in Richmond at 8:30 on
Monday)? Did I continue back to Richmond with the steering reversed, with the possibility that, in an emergency, Suzanne or I might
spin the wheel the wrong direction and run the boat into something? I decided on a third option – I needed to pull into the York River
Yacht Haven – near the mouth of the creek and past the scary “thin water” section – to pick up fuel anyway. While I was there, I would
quickly change the connections and repressurize the system.
Now, this actually violates one of the sacred laws of boating. You do NOT do maintenance on a fuel pier! You especially do not do
maintenance on a fuel pier on a Friday evening. People are trying to get fuel and get out and a forty-five foot boat on a one hundred
foot fuel pier takes up a lot of space.
Luckily for us, the fuel dock was unmanned and only one other small boat wanted fuel while we were there. The repair did not go quite
as smoothly as I would have liked – one of the flared copper fittings would not reengage when we tried to put it back together. We
eventually had to take the wheel off, pull the helm pump out of its fittings and reconnect the flared tubing connections, then reassemble
everything. We quickly re-pressurized the system and, since we had not lost a lot of hydraulic fluid, the system worked with only a small
amount of “sponginess.” As the weekend went on, the sponginess got a little worse, but it never got to the point where I was
uncomfortable about the steering.
We finally got underway from YRYH at 5:00 and were off into the York River. As we made the turn into the Chesapeake Bay, the wind
was from the south and the current was from the north, so the ride got a little bumpy and cool. In fact, long before sundown it reached
the point that both Suzanne and I were in jackets and Suzanne’s ears were covered with a scarf.
The original plan was for us to be in the river by 5:00 so that we could be in the small cove next to Fort Monroe by 9:00. Because of
our unplanned repair, we ended up being about fifteen minutes behind schedule and, although we did have a slight current from behind
to help speed us along, we got into the cove well after dark. In addition, I discovered that the Lewmar anchor windlass that had worked
fine on the way down to the boat yard was now AWOL. That meant I would have to put the anchor down (and pull it back up) by hand.
Our primary anchor is a 45 pound plow anchor on two hundred feet of chain. It is an excellent anchor and I have no doubt it would hold
us in a blow. However, having pulled it up by hand twice before, I was not in a hurry to do this again. Our other main anchor is a 21
pound Fortress fluke style which, according to the brochures, should be more than enough to hold us in place. However, this anchor
was not currently attached to any line and I had no chain for it. I had plenty of line available, so that wasn’t a problem and I had it
rigged and ready to go before dark. However, never having used it before, I was less than thrilled with the idea of using it for the first
time with an untried anchor line.
We motored into the cove to find that there were three boats there before us. One was a large cabin cruiser with a lot of windage, one
was a cruising catamaran and the third was a monohull sailboat about 30 feet long. Great, I thought, all three of these are going to sit
differently in the wind and current – and the tide is going to shift at some point.
We originally put the anchor down in a position about equal distance from all three other boats, so that we formed a rough square.
Unfortunately, we immediately started swinging in the current and ended up very close to the cat and the sailboat, which made us
uncomfortable. We pulled up the anchor and moved away from all three, putting us just off the main channel. When you look at
pictures of this cove, taken from the air, it looks huge, but it doesn’t take a lot of boats to make it feel crowded.
This was the first night on the boat since we had put in the new battery bank, which should significantly increase the ability to hold
power during the night. However, should and do are two different things. The engine has a dedicated starting battery and I have a
2KW Honda generator, but I live in fear that the power will die during the night, and the anchor light will go out, leaving us in the dark
and at the mercy of some idiot driving a speedboat into us. It may not be a rational fear, but what fears truly are?
So, to review – we are spending our first night “on the hook” in over two years, not counting the night we were towed down here, the
anchor is one that I have never used before, the line on the anchor is not one that I would have chosen first for the use (it was double
braid instead of three strand), I am still not sure that the batteries will last through the night and we are closer to the main channel than I
would be thrilled with.
We went to bed about 10:00 and I was back up at 3:00. I had decided that we would get underway at 5:00, since that was just before
sunrise and the sky should be light. From 3:00 to 4:00, I programmed the day’s trip into the Chartplotter, reviewed the operating
instructions for the new radio and set in the channels I wanted it to scan, checked e-mail and read the news and made sure the anchor
was still holding. At 4:15, I went back to bed. At 4:45, I gave up on sleeping and got up to start the day. Suzanne stirred and I told her
to stay in bed, that I would get us underway and she could come up when she felt like it.
I did the engine checks, added a little coolant to the heat exchanger and fired up the engine. I checked the battery bank and still had
well over fifty percent of the power available. I left the engine running in neutral and went forward to pull the anchor up. The line came
up easily, but the anchor itself was down tight. I had had nothing to worry about, that anchor was going NOWHERE. I tugged and
heaved, but got nowhere. Finally, I tied the anchor line off to one of the bow cleats and went back to the cockpit. I put the boat in gear
and slowly gave it a little fuel. She started moving forward, shuddered as the anchor line came tight and then started forward again. I
dropped her back into neutral and went forward to pull the anchor aboard. There is nothing like a little pull in the wrong direction to pull
an anchor free. When I got it back on deck, it was covered with a sticky gray-black mud that felt like cold, wet cornstarch. I will never
doubt that anchor again and I am even happier with that anchorage.
We pulled out of the anchorage and headed toward the James River Bridge, crossing over the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the
Monitor-Merrimack Bridge-Tunnel along the way. I am always fascinated as I cross the stretch of river where the two ironclad warships
squared off. It is in clear view from the Hampton-Newport News area, the Norfolk waterfront and the Suffolk shoreline. What a day that
must have been when those two monsters fought. To stand on the shore and see things that should not have been – ships with no
sails and cannonballs bouncing off of them – must have been terrifying to the people who had no idea how their life would change if the
wrong vessel lost. The fact that the battle was fought to a draw was probably a disappointment to the designers and Navy men, but the
civilians probably drew a small breath of relief.
After getting the bridge lifted at the James River Bridge, we proceeded up river, past the Ghost Fleet, which gets smaller every time we
pass. I wonder how long that will continue to be a marker along the route. Busch Gardens has added a new roller coaster since the
last time we powered by and it has altered the skyline, giving us another monument to look for. We crossed between the ferries that
run between Scotland and Jamestown, while simultaneously passing a tug headed down river with a half-dozen barges pushed ahead of
it. As is my policy, I contacted the tug and confirmed that we would pass port-to-port. Rockhopper is too slow to dance with tugboats
and I prefer to follow the letter of the law when it comes to vessel communications, rather than just the spirit. More on this idea later.
Past the mouth of the Chickahominy River, the James starts to narrow and the current increased. We had already been fighting a half
knot current, but our speed over the ground dropped until we were going a full 1.5 knots slower than our speed over the ground. It was
like walking the wrong way on an escalator. For the most part, we just accepted the facts and trucked along at five knots. Occasionally,
we would come to a bend in the river where we would get into a spot where the current wasn’t as strong and our speed over ground
would shoot up, but it just meant that we would get back into the main channel that much faster.
We slid under the raised Benjamin Harrison Bridge at about 3:45, and cu in close to the docks in Hopewell. The channel in that area is
really narrow and, although the water area is wide, the river is very shallow. Birds can be seen walking in the mud in the middle of the
river at low tide, which this was. After we were two miles past the bridge, we looked back and realized that there was another tug
coming under the bridge behind us. We monitored his progress for the next thirty minutes or so and he seemed to be very slowly
catching up with us.
I assumed he was keeping his speed down because of all of the other traffic in the area. Small family ski boats zipping back and forth
with kids on tubes, bass boats and jon boats adrift in the middle of the channel cheerfully fishing and long, sleek racing boats flying up
and down the river, going nowhere at a huge cost in fuel (I believe that these boats tend to use more fuel going from their slip to the
fuel docks than I will use all day) all converged in front of the tug, which probably would have taken a mile or two to stop with all power
astern. If I was creating a “boater safety course,” I would set half a day aside simply to explain the physics of tugboats and why, pulling
your kid on a tube in front of a fully loaded barge, just so he can feel the bow wave is not a good idea. I don’t believe in creating man-
made laws to prevent this sort of stupidity, simply because I believe the laws of physics and nature handle it quite well, thanks.
After thirty minutes or so, it became clear that the tug following us was going to eventually catch up with us, so I called him on the radio.
He came back right away and said that he was the Richard Burton. I explained where we were and asked him what he would like to do.
He said he was headed for the Deepwater Terminals, which were about six miles further up river from where we were going to spend the
night. I explained that we intended to anchor about two miles further up river and that we would like to let him pass us before we got
there. He agreed and said that he would come up our port side, since we were already on that side of the river.
Maritime law is clear that the boat being overtaken is supposed to maintain course and speed, while the overtaking boat maneuvers
around her. That is, of course, unless the captains of the two vessels agree beforehand to do something else. It would have been
stupid of us to try to force the Richard Burton to go around us, so at the next wide bend in the river, we slid over to the right as far as
we could and cut our speed to the slowest we could. Since the current was still flowing at us, we were able to get our speed down to
about one knot over the ground, while still having more than two knots of current over the rudder. This gave us plenty of ability to
maneuver while keeping us out of the Burton’s way. He trucked on past us and we fell into the slick water behind him, letting him slowly
pull away from us. He called back to say that he appreciated our maneuver, that he would be heading back downriver the next morning
about 6:00 and if there was anything they could do for us, all we had to do was ask. We thanked him and told him to have a safe
journey. He called back the same and dropped off the radio.
There is a point here. Running a tugboat on the upper James River is like driving a tractor trailer on a residential street while dozens of
kids on tricycles play in front of you. You know that the potential for disaster is always high and you know that, when it happens, it is
going to be seen as at least partly your fault. It has to be an incredibly stressful job. So, anytime a boat operator calls you and
confirms that he is aware of you and is going to maneuver to let you have the right-of-way, it makes your day a little less stressful. It
doesn’t take long and I am sure that it would be overwhelming if everyone called to say “hey, I am going to stay out of your way,” but
every time I do it, I find that the tug captains are appreciative and willing to do whatever they can to make things safe and comfortable.
After we let the Richard Burton slip away, we finally came into sight of the Varina-Enon Bridge. Since we got to that location just an
hour or so before low tide, we knew that it would be six hours or so before we could get over the mud bar in the little creek where our
home marina sits. Rather than risk getting stuck in the mud, we had decided to anchor in the river for the night. Pulling off to the side
of the river, we circled around to find a spot out of the channel but with deep enough water that, when the tide changed and we shifted
around, we wouldn’t get stuck.
This time, I decided to put the plow anchor and chain down. I wanted to get some of the chain out of the chain locker so that I could get
a look at the windlass itself. I wanted to check the electrical connections at the windlass, since I knew I had power at the battery end.
My hope was that I would figure out what the problem was, fix it and be able to bring the anchor back up with the windlass.
We anchored in about 15 feet of water and I put out about 90 feet of chain. The tidal range was less than three feet in this area, so at
high tide, I would have a scope (the ratio of the length of chain to the depth of water) of about 5 to 1, which is light for a storm in an
open harbor, but more than adequate for all chain in a very protected river anchorage. At the same time, I didn’t have so much chain
out that, at low tide, the boat would run into the mud along the shore as it swung. We shut down the engine and fired up the generator
to recharge batteries for the evening. This also let us run the electric water heater, although there wasn’t enough power to also run the
air conditioner and the air was thick and muggy. Being on the anchor is much more pleasant when there is enough open water to get a
good breeze going through the boat. Fans can only do so much.
I took a shower while Suzanne made spaghetti for dinner and we sat in the cockpit to eat it. The day had been a long one – thirteen
hours underway – and I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep the night before, so it wasn’t long before we crawled into bed to watch some
television and drift off.
I actually slept until about 6:00 and woke refreshed. Suzanne slept on, so once again, I read the comics and the news, checked e-mail
and prepared for the day. I continued trying to troubleshoot the connections between the GPS, the AIS and the radio until it was time to
get underway to catch the tide into the marina.
We crossed into the creek about 10:30 and were tied up before 11:00. After two long months and tens of thousands of dollars, we were
finally home again.
Our new slip is wonderful. We are able to be alongside the pier, rather than tied in at the stern, so we can actually work on the boat
from the pier. We have DEEP water. At low tide, we still have more than 9 feet showing on the depth finder, which means we have at
least five feet before we touch bottom (in our old slip, we spend a lot of time buried a foot or more in the mud). We have access to four
electrical sockets, two of them boat connections and two of them regular ones. The only problem is that we seem to be more of a bug
haven than we were in the middle of the marina, but we are looking into a bug zapper or something similar to combat this problem.
I declared a one-week moratorium on boat projects. The last week of May, the only boat jobs are the ones that are necessary for daily
living (installing the deck mounted air conditioners, for example) or emergencies (none). I contacted the engine mechanic about a few
minor questions and the electronics manufacturer. The electronics guy, who is in New Zealand, is the most responsive – giving me
detailed information on what the connection problems are and how to fix them, even providing information that I can’t get from the other
“big guy” electronics manufacturers – not even on-line.
We are in for the long haul now and significantly closer to the day when we can get away permanently. The next big project – re-rigging
the boat. I can’t say where we will be doing that, but I can definitely say where we will not. When the bill arrives and it is three and a
half times larger than the estimate, you really tend to lose faith in the company.
Until next month, fair winds…